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Dining review: New London's Cinnamon Grill offers expansive tour of Asian cuisine

At last! We as a society begin to emerge from both rounds of COVID vaccinations and are taking cautious steps into a grave — er, I meant to say "brave" — new world.

This means, with sensible precaution, it's possible to again go into a restaurant and sit down and have a meal! At the same time, I'm a hypochondriac. And so, to accompany me on this first-restaurant-in-over-a-year excursion, I wanted someone with medical skills. There are local epidemiologists, but hanging out with any of them, it seems to me, would be like rolling naked across a path of petri dishes on the Level 4 Contagion Unit at the CDC.

Instead, I called Dr. Jon Gaudio, an eminent cardiologist who also happens to write a monthly column on health and wellness for The Day. We tried the new Cinnamon Grill in New London, site of previous restaurants including Gaspar's and 385 Bank Street. It features a diverse sampling from chiefly Sri Lanka but also dishes from across Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, India, Malaysia, and Maldives.

I'm assuming the Cinnamon Grill hopes that if, on first experience, the diner likes it, he/she would return with a mind toward experimentation. Sign me up.

The building has a bipartite floorplan with dark wood wainscotting, cream walls and art prints, tile floors and a pressed tin ceiling. The few tables are spaced safely, and, in the narrow dining room, high-backed booths run along one wall. There's a larger lounge area on the other side of the restaurant, where, it should be noticed, beer, wine and liquor are not yet available. (Our witty and helpful hostess/server advised that the liquor license is due within the next several days. Until then, it's BYOB.)

Gaudio and I were the only two folks in the dining room; there were five people eating in the lounge — two at the bar and three at a table. White linen tablecloths and napkins add to the ambience.

The menu is divided between appetizers, salads, soups, curries, rice, entrees, and Cinnamon Grill Specialties. There are several items for each, and those are divided among country of origin — meaning there is usually one dish per category representing a different type of cuisine.

Gaudio, who meets with patients all afternoon and didn't want to fall asleep, opted to try the Chili Garlic Fried Chicken Wings (six for $8.95) and a bowl of Homemade Lao Chicken Noodle Soup ($7.95).

The wings, he says, "are some of the best I've had, period. Buffalo wings are bland by comparison." I tried one and agreed. The pieces were plump and moist inside with a dense and crisped exterior. We both happily noted an unfamiliar chili seasoning; we theorized it would have been very popular with pirates pillaging spice merchants on the Silk Road centuries ago. Gaudio later wrote me a note later adding, "The only thing I didn't like was (the wings) made my fingers red and sticky," which I can speculate with confidence is a situation the doctor corrected before affixing EKG cables to his next patient.

He also like the chicken soup, which is interesting because he typically doesn't LIKE chicken soup, citing dozens of patients who "swore that they could cure any number of ills with chicken soup, but usually they were in for congestive heart failure — the one ailment that salty chicken soup tends to make worse." In this case, the chicken was typically plain in a tasty broth, faintly reminiscent of MSG and French Onion soup, that contained lots of delicious thick noodles and something slightly crunchy — rice? — for an unexpected and happy contrast.

I tried the lunch menu's version of Butter Chicken ($8.95) and dish from India served with Rasam soup. The latter is a thick, brown creation that seemed more of a meat gravy than anything else. It would have been fun to have some bread or nan with which to dip. The entree was pretty wonderful, with thick chunks of tender breast meat, diced cashews and white onion in a rich sauce propelled by coconut milk. Too, there was a buttery presence, but it was a velvety, subtle addition. Served with a heaping mound of toothsome yellow rice, it made me very happy.

Two nights later, my wife Eileen and I called in an order to be delivered (they serve New London and Waterford; $25 minimum).  It's worth noting that Eileen is a vegetarian and mentioned that while ordering; it was appreciated that the restaurant called us back to make sure it was OK that Eileen's Black Bean Soup (Malaysian, $5.95) contained an egg.

The soup was very good but didn't contain the Asian/Malasian twist we'd anticipated. Rather, it was similar to a Mexican version of a black bean soup — flavored cilantro, cumin, tomato, onions and peppers. Still, it was a lovely, bean-forward brew, with a bit of chew coming from the egg.

Eileen's main event meal was a savored Sri Lankan street dish called Kottu ($15.95, comes in beef, chicken or vegetable version). The menu describes carrot, leeks, onion, eggs, scallion in a mild, earthy curry sauce, and, of particular interest, shredded pita bread. Like pasta or rice, the pita is a starchy foundation, but it also serves to absorb all the recipe's many flavors.

I started with a Sri Lankan version of Fried Crab Rolls (3 pieces, $7.95) served with a tarter-style sauce that tasted pleasantly of pickles. Dare I speculate the hardened exterior batter contained faint traces of cinnamon? Whatever, it was a great touch, and the interior, with shreds of fresh crab and blended potato and onion, was delicious.

For a main course, I went with the Tamarind Cod (Vietnam, market-priced $16.95). It was a fireworks show of pleasurably jousting flavors provided by Brussels sprouts, fried eggs, spinach, tomato and the playfully tart Tamarind sauce, all covering a lovely piece of thick, flaky, firm cod. For punctuation, the dish was topped with pomegranate seeds. Everything was terrific — except, well, the presentation included a LOT of slices of a large mushroom. Lamentably, the mushroom was not mentioned in the menu description, and I truly detest mushrooms. I'll tell you what, though. I wasn't going to send it back, and I WAS hungry, so Eileen and I, with the skill of archaeologists excavating the tomb of a pharoah, excised all presence of the hellish fungus, and I blithely and bravely scarfed the rest of it down. Delicious.

As indicated, part of the fun of Cinnamon Grill is the idea of working our way across a whole cartography of cuisines. We are completely confident the Grill can pull it all off.

If you go

Cinnamon Grill

385 Bank St., New London

(860) 574-9414, cinnamongrill.net

Cuisine: Sri Lankan with adventurous offerings from across southeast Asia

Atmosphere: Clean with a dark wood and cream color scheme, separate lounge and dining room spaced for safety

Outdoor seating: Yes

Alcohol: BYOB, liquor license impending in next few weeks

Service: Very friendly, helpful, and all employees are masked

Prices: Very reasonable with lunch specials maxing out at $10.95 and dinner entrees ranging from $13.95-$34.95

Handicap accessible: Yes

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri., noon-9:30 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

Credit cards: All majors

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